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Learning opportunities from cans to photocopiers to trains

A Japanese manufacturer of printing equipment and photocopiers set itself a most challenging goal: to design a desktop photocopier at a mere 5% of the cost of the standard office photocopier. Naturally, the company engineers thought that management had taken leave of their senses. How could the project manager get his team to believe that the task was possible? 

Inside a photocopier is a round cylinder, called the drum. It’s the most expensive item and can be considered as the key cost driver. The project manager turned a can of soft drink over in his hands at the next project meeting. He held it up. “What do you think is the cost of this?”  

Now the team knew for sure that management must have lost its collective head, again. "They think that they can put a soft drinks can inside an instrument like a photocopier."  “No”, said the project manager, “All I’m asking from you is to reduce the costs of the drum to one twentieth. The price of this aluminium can is only one ten thousandth of the cost of one of our drums”.  From that point onwards, he had started to win the team around. 

At another factory, making trains, the Japanese guru of quality management looked at the massive machine used for assembling the wheels. Two great blocks rose on each side of each wheel, clasping the large discs into position. Rods fastened the flanks into place. He was pensive.    “Have you ever looked inside a photocopier?”  Stupefaction was all around. “We don’t make photocopiers here”, was the reply. 

In a consumer products company, making soft drinks, the operations director was present as the consultant told a story about a company manufacturing rail equipment that had succeeded on a project against all the odds. The experience illustrated that leadership on projects could take place at all levels. Unfortunately, the director stormed out half way through the presentation. “Doesn’t this consultant understand”, he exclaimed, “We’re a soft drinks company. We don’t make trains!”  ! ! !


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